Most organizations have some sort a process for assessing the 'potential' of its employees. This is very much required as the 'fallacy of promoting an employee to a new job based on high performance in the current job' is well known. There won't be many HR professionals (or even business managers) who haven't heard about the 'tragic story' of the 'star salesman who was promoted to the sales manager position and failed miserably'. So the business case for 'potential appraisal' is quite strong.
The problem begins when one asks questions like
a. How exactly should organizations go about assessing potential?
b. Can potential assessment be done (within the organizational constraints) in a reasonably valid manner?
c. If there are serious doubts regarding the validity of potential appraisal in a particular organization context, is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in that organization?
There are different points of view when it comes to the answers to these questions and that is what makes potential assessment paradoxical. A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another.
The common methods used for 'potential appraisal' include managerial judgment, 360 degree appraisal, psychometric testing, assessment centres etc. Sometimes, a combination of these methods are also used. In most cases the choice of method(s) is driven mainly by the amount of time and resources that the organization is willing to invest in the process and the 'cultural readiness' of the organization. Sometimes the choice could also be driven by things like 'casual benchmarking', latest seminar attended by the HR Head, pet methodology of the consulting firm hired etc.
I feel that the basic issue in potential assessment (which sometimes does not get enough attention) is 'potential for what?'. Many answers are possible here. They include
1. potential to be effective in a particular position
2. potential to be effective in a particular job family
3. potential to be effective at a particular level
4. potential to take up leadership positions in the company
5. potential to move up the organization ladder/levels in an accelerated timeframe etc.
Logically, the first four answers should lead to the creation of a capability framework that details the requirements to be effective in the job/job family/level/leadership positions that we are taking about. Similarly, the fifth answer should lead to identification of attributes/capabilities that enable an employee to quickly climb up the organization ladder.
It is interesting to note that since these capability requirements can be different for different organizations a person who is rated as 'high potential' in one organization might not necessarily be rated so in another organization (and vice versa) - even if we rule out any errors in measurement. However, the capability frameworks (especially the 'behavioral competency frameworks') tend to be quite similar across organizations (for a variety of reasons including the generic nature of the frameworks, attempt to include all possible 'good' behaviors in the framework, casual benchmarking of competency frameworks, hiring the same consultant to develop the framework etc.). Hence, assuming reasonable consistency of measurement, the potential ratings for the same person might not vary too much across organizations - unless the underlying definitions of potential (i.e. answer to the question - 'potential for what?' mentioned above) are different across the organizations.
The potential assessment has to be done with respect to the requisite capabilities mentioned above. Depending on the nature of the particular capability, the method for assessing it can be chosen keeping in mind the organization constraints/context specific factors. In many cases the employees might not have had an opportunity to demonstrate the requisite capabilities (for the future/target job) in their current/previous jobs. This would call for some sort of simulation, similar to those used in assessment centres. For some aspects of particular capabilities that are close to work styles/ personality attributes some sort of psychometric testing could also be useful. Psychometric testing also becomes useful if the fit between ‘certain dimensions of the organization culture and the employee’s personality’ gets identified as a key factor for potential. Managerial judgment (especially if it is calibrated through an in-depth discussion by a group of managers who have had significant amount work related interaction with the employee) and 360 degree feedback are useful to supplement the data from assessment centres/from other assessment tools - particularly from a data interpretation/'reality testing' point of view.
In the choice of methods/process, it is very important to strike the right balance between accuracy of the assessment (from a validity point of view) and the time/resource investment required (from a sustainability point of view). Some capabilities are easier to develop through training/experience in a short period of time while it is not the case for some other capabilities. So if the time/resource constraints do not allow the potential assessment to cover all the capabilities, the capabilities that are difficult to develop through training/experience in a short period of time should get priority. Of course, we need to look at the relative importance of various capabilities for enabling effectiveness on the job. Thus, to achieve a reasonable amount of validity, 'potential assessment' requires a significant amount effort and if the organization is not willing to use anything other than 'judgment of the immediate manager' for assessing potential, the usefulness of the assessment becomes doubtful.
This brings us to the issue of how would the organization use the results of the potential assessment. Most common practice is to combine the potential assessment with the performance assessment in order to arrive at some sort of 'talent classification' that segments the employees into various categories and to define particular courses of action for each category (e.g. promote, invest, retain, develop, move out etc.). It has to be kept in mind that even if the performance assessment has been done in an objective manner, if the validity of the potential assessment is doubtful, the talent classification and the consequent actions become debatable.
There are also other interesting dimensions here such as whether the organization would disclose the results of the potential assessment and talent classification to the employee in question. Not disclosing this could create issues related to transparency and even those related to data privacy/data protection. Disclosing the information might lead to a situation where the employee questions the results/methods, forcing the manager/organization to explain how exactly were the results arrived at and also the steps taken to ensure the validity of the process/ results.
There is also the issue of employees who were assessed to be 'low potential' feeling discouraged/demotivated. Sometimes, these negative reactions are even worse than those to a 'low' rating on performance. In many organizations, the results of potential assessment for a particular employee tend to remain the same across years (especially for assessment of 'leadership potential'). Thus once employees get a 'low rating' on potential, they might feel that they will never get an opportunity to take up leadership positions. Many employees also feel that they have a better chance of influencing their performance rating as compared to influencing their potential rating, especially when the potential appraisal process is not very transparent.
I have also come across situations where the potential assessment has been misused. Sometimes potential assessment is positioned/communicated to the employees as 'purely for capability development' though the potential ratings get used for making key decisions that impact the employee's career advancement. Of course, there could be much worse scenarios. Many years ago, when I was doing a diagnostic study of the HR systems of a company, I was told that though the performance planning and review system of the company provides an option to the employees to disagree with the manager on the performance rating, no one exercises that option. When I tried to investigate the reason for this, I found that the process provides for a 'potential rating' in addition to the performance rating and that the 'potential rating' is not even shared with the employee. It was common practice among the managers in that company to give a 'low' rating on potential for any employee who disagrees with manager on the performance rating. Since a 'low' rating on potential would have ruined the career of an employee in that company, no one wanted to take the risk of disagreeing with the manager on the performance rating. I hope that this scenario is a rare one. However, the point is that potential assessment can be misused and this could have serious adverse effects on employee engagement and retention.
Thus, the organization needs to think through the entire gamut of issues related to potential assessment in its context (objective, methodology/process, validity, initial investment/effort required to put the process in place, time/effort required for each cycle, sustainability, use of the results, employee communication, cost benefit analysis etc.) before a potential appraisal system is put in place. While perfect solutions may not be feasible/required, it does require thinking though multiple scenarios, options and implications and making informed decisions/trade offs. This would enable the organization to maximize the implementation effectiveness and to minimize/mange the possible adverse side effects of implementation. This is the requirement for being able to give a positive answer to the question that we started off with (Is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in the organization?)!!!